Kyle Hendricks, Kris Bryant help transform Cubs into 100-win team

Kyle Hendricks, Kris Bryant help transform Cubs into 100-win team

PITTSBURGH – The Cubs have gone from the happy-to-be-here team that crashed last year’s playoff party to a 100-win machine that’s expected to win the World Series or else be remembered as underachievers.  

The evolution of Kyle Hendricks from a fifth starter to a legitimate Cy Young Award candidate helps explain why the Cubs have lived up to the preseason hype. Kris Bryant not resting on his Rookie of the Year campaign and following it up with an MVP-level performance also created these expectations for October.

“It’s not too often that you get this much talent in one room on one team,” Bryant said after Monday night’s 12-2 win over the Pittsburgh Pirates at PNC Park. “We need to realize what we have here and be grateful for it. I certainly am. I couldn’t have pictured a better first two years in the big leagues.”

The Cubs won’t be leaving their season up to the coin flip of a wild-card game, the way they did 355 days ago at PNC Park, where it almost looks like the Pirates (77-79) still haven’t recovered. What once appeared to be a circle-your-calendar showdown that could decide the National League Central is now glorified spring training for the Cubs in late September.

The Cubs reached 100 wins for the first time since 1935 with Hendricks throwing six scoreless innings to lower his major-league-leading-ERA to 1.99 ERA, and Bryant hitting his 39th homer to surpass the 100-RBI mark after finishing with 99 last year.

[SHOP: Gear up, Cubs fans!]

This is the type of star-studded team where Javier Baez can break the game wide open with a grand slam in the fourth inning – and finish with six RBI – and reporters still don’t have enough time to interview him in the postgame clubhouse.

This is also the type of confident group where Bryant can tell Chris Coghlan pregame that he’d hand over all the money in his wallet if the leadoff guy scored on his 100th RBI. That’s why Coghlan interrupted Bryant at his locker and wanted to get paid, telling the media: “Don’t let him fool you, he’s rich."

Or where three-time Manager of the Year Joe Maddon can approach a confused Hendricks after the fourth inning – not to offer some profound insight into the art of pitching – but to instead settle a question among the coaching staff in the dugout: What’s the Dartmouth College mascot?

“After he did not go to third base on that groundball, I went up to him and said, ‘Now, if I were to go to Dartmouth and went to the bookstore…’” Maddon recalled. “And he says, ‘Yeah, I’d go…’

“I said, ‘No, it has nothing to do with going first to third. If I were to go to the bookstore and I picked up a T-shirt, what would the nickname say on the front of it?’ And he said: ‘The Big Green.’

“So I learned something.”

Hendricks didn’t have to block out the blackout atmosphere or silence an announced crowd of 20,519 surrounded by sections of empty seats. A quiet, polite Ivy League graduate would never troll Pittsburgh fans on Twitter the way Jake Arrieta did last year. But the Cubs are witnessing another historic run that could catapult them through October.

The Cubs are riding the wave that always begins with starting pitching – teammate Jon Lester ranks second in the majors with a 2.28 ERA and lines up as the Game 1 starter in front of Hendricks. Now Hendricks has allowed three earned runs or fewer in each of his last 22 starts, putting up a 16-8 record, a 0.97 WHIP and 185 innings during this breakthrough season.

“Obviously, we did not anticipate all of this,” Maddon said. “He’s really exceeded, and good for him. This is something I think he can carry on for years. This is by no means a fluke. It’s not an anomaly. This is how good he’s capable of being. So it’s made a big difference that he’s been able to do what he’s done this year. No question.”

Both Hendricks, an A-ball pitcher at the time, and Bryant came out of the ashes of a 101-loss season in 2012, with Ryan Dempster approving a trade to the Texas Rangers minutes before the deadline and the Cubs using the No. 2 overall pick in the 2013 draft on the University of San Diego slugger who would become a superstar.

Theo Epstein’s front office constructed the best team in baseball ahead of schedule with polished, unselfish, intelligent athletes like Bryant and Hendricks. One hundred wins is nice, but…

“You guys know what this team’s like and where we want to go,” Hendricks said. “It’s just another step on the way.”

Albert Almora's strong connection to Team USA baseball

Albert Almora's strong connection to Team USA baseball

Who was Theo Epstein’s first draft pick with the Cubs?

The answer to that trivia question will always and forever be Albert Almora Jr. picked sixth overall in the 2012 amateur draft.

In some ways, the young outfielder from Florida became the forgotten man in the stable of can’t-miss prospects that Epstein and top lieutenants Jed Hoyer and Jason MacLeod amassed since their arrival over six years ago. While players such as Kris Bryant, Kyle Schwarber and Ian Happ zoomed through the minor leagues on their way to the majors, Almora took a different path – one that included seven different stops over parts of five developmental seasons before he broke into the big leagues during the 2016 season.

But Almora’s road to the majors began years before he was selected by the Cubs, when he began playing for Team USA as a 13-year-old. Over the next several years, Almora played for the Red, White & Blue seven times, his final appearance coming in 2015. The seven appearances are the most in the history of USA Baseball, and Almora recognizes the impact his time with the national squad had on his playing career.

“[It was] one of the best experiences of my life," he said. "Every year I had something special to play with, unbelievable guys, went to crazy places, and out of those six years, five of them came with a gold medal so that was pretty special as well. Also, that helped me in my baseball life, how to experience things and learn from those type of experiences.

“I’m a Cubbie and that’s what’s on my chest right now, but Team USA will always have a special place in my heart.”

While Almora carries those national team experiences with him every day, his main focus coming into the 2018 season is becoming a consistent difference-maker. Almora made only 65 starts during the 2017 campaign, and 63 percent of his at-bats last year came against left-handed pitching, against which he hit a robust .342. That led to a platoon role in a crowded outfield, with Jason Heyward, Kyle Schwarber, Jon Jay, Ian Happ and Ben Zobrist all taking turns on the merry-go-round. But with the departure of Jay, Almora believes his time is near.

“I have the most confidence in myself that I can play every day, but I try not to think about that kind of stuff because it’s out of my control," Almora said. "All I control is like last year what I did; whenever I was given an opportunity, I tried to do my best and help the team win.”

Almora’s ultimate role on the 2018 Cubs remains to be seen, but there’s no question that Theo’s first Cubs pick will earn whatever role he ends up with, and the foundation of Almora’s journey to Clark and Addison was laid many summers ago during his time with Team USA.

Willson Contreras willing to pay the price for mound visits

Willson Contreras willing to pay the price for mound visits

News broke to Willson Contreras that the league will be limiting mound visits this upcoming season, and the Cubs catcher —notorious for his frequent visits to the rubber — is not having it.

“I’ve been reading a lot about this rule, and I don’t really care. If you have to go again and pay the price for my team, I will," he said.

The new rules rolled out Tuesday will limit six visits —any time a manager, coach or player visits the mound — per nine innings. But, communication between a player and a pitcher that does not require them moving from their position does not count as a visit.When a team is out of visits, it's the umpire's discretion to allow an extra trip to the mound.

But despite the new rules, Contreras is willing to do what's best for the team.

“There’s six mound visits, but what if you have a tight game? They cannot say anything about that. If you’re going to fine me about the [seventh] mound visit, I’ll pay the price.”